Deacon’s Folly

t was late when my friend began to speak. The lights cast a glow upon him that would have made him seem eerie, had I not been his companion of nearly ten years. Strangeweather moved his face until it was directly illuminated, and addressed our party clearly, crisply, and with more than a hint of menace. The rest of us sipped Scotch and shrank into our chairs until our childlike proportions poked through our adult skin and reshaped the tweed and wool of our jackets.

*        *        *

Years ago, when I lived in Edinburgh, few gas lights graced the Mile. Pockets of inky blackness spread between each lamppost and one could disappear into them at barely a moment’s notice. Many did. The labyrinths beneath the city were home to hundreds of lost souls who might once have made their way from tavern to tavern, and, eventually, to their homes. Instead, the alleyways took them.

I worked in the gardens at the Castle, and, at the end of each day, made the trip down the Mile and across the river to my boarding house, a cold, sparsely furnished room in the new town. Accompanying me each evening was another lad who worked at the Castle, Samuel Brodie, a native Edinburgher with a simple and direct manner (much like our friend Mr. Butler) whom I had met a year before, and brought to work on the grounds.

Brodie would slink sideways, disappearing at the end of the Mile into a brougham carriage. I could not say why, but I never asked him where he boarded.

One night deep into November, the air hardening the soft rain into snow,

Arthur's Seat, viewed from Edinburgh Castle. Photo by EEJ.

Brodie and I left the Castle grounds and made our way down the slope of the Royal Mile. We passed the tavern at the top of the street and heard bristling shouts coming from inside. Then the light faded, we dipped into darkness, and eventually the next gaslight shone upon us.

After one moment too many in silence, Brodie asked: “Do ye know the story, Strangeweather? Of the Deacon?”

“Deacon Brodie?”

“Aye. Artisan by day and robber by night.”

I told him that I knew the tale. Really, I said, who in Edinburgh – who in Scotland – did not? Supposedly, William Brodie had built the first gallows in the country and then fallen foul of the law and been hanged by the very contraption he had built.

“We continue to be punished,” my companion said. We were in the darkness and I could feel his breath clouding around him in the winter street. “Before the Deacon, the Brodies, if not of noble blood, came from a revered lineage. Respected about town, ye see?”

Aye, I said, and left it at that. As the streetlights grew more frequent and we reached the end of the street, I saw a leering grin on Brodie’s face. He turned, finally, and cantered towards the waiting carriage on Blair Street.

Throughout December, our routine remained the same. Brodie spoke from time to time of his ancestor, the gentleman burglar, but our conversations rarely lasted long. The Scot was absent from the Christmas service at the Castle and only reappeared at the Hogmanay celebrations at the end of the year. By February, I was living with a permanent chill in my bones, and Brodie, who had seemed always so robust, was ashen-faced and sour.

We were sliding our way down the Mile later that month, snow covering the street and lightening the darks between the streetlamps, when Brodie took my arm and pulled me towards an alleyway to our right. I grasped his overcoat, barely staying upright, and felt his bones protruding from beneath.

“Strangeweather,” he said. It was a growl more than a word. “We are friends, aye?”

“Aye, Brodie, but–”

“I have been debating for weeks whether to tell ye or no.” He paused as though this were a question and he expected a reply. “I have something for ye, a job, perhaps.” Brodie stalked off towards the Mile before I could ask what, exactly, he wanted me to do. Perhaps he wished to recompense me for finding him work.

At the end of the road, he turned right and called me on, his face clearer in the well-lit street, its pallor evident even against the crisp white snow. A brougham stood waiting, a thin layer of snow settled on its roof, and Brodie gestured to it with the same unnatural grin that I had seen months earlier. If only, my dear friends, I had turned and walked across the river and back to my icy room in the boarding house on Waverley Square.

Instead, I stepped up to the carriage and climbed into it with Brodie.

At first, I thought us alone. But after a moment, the creases and folds of an overcoat appeared in the corner of the cab. Crumpled against the seat was a man. Leaning forward, his face, I saw, was sallow and withdrawn, his skin pallid like Brodie’s, but with lines and wrinkles that the younger man did not have. He reached out a hand that was adorned with gnarled, curling fingernails and said:

“Mr. Strangeweather. How do you do. I am Deacon Brodie.”

The air puffed out of my lungs. Not wishing to be impolite, I took the man’s hand. It was stone cold. When he withdrew it, I saw on the back a faint impression, as though I had crushed some of the rotting flesh beneath my fingers. Deacon Brodie grinned a lilting, familiar grin and the brougham began to move.

When I regained some of my faculties, I turned to the younger Brodie, but a reflection of the man that was sitting across from us, and tried to speak. Words were lost to me. “There is one last job, Strangeweather,” Samuel Brodie said. “The Deacon has been planning it for years, since the day he was hanged at the hands of this city.” The clattering carriage struggled against cobblestones. The man – the dead man in the corner – barely moved.

After several minutes, mercifully, the carriage stopped and the younger Scot climbed out into the snow. I followed him agitatedly. I asked what he was talking about, told him I didn’t understand, but before he could reply, the thin, white figure of Deacon Brodie stepped lightly onto the snow.

“This is where it happened,” he said. His voice rasped against the night, but the air did not cloud around him. He turned to look at me. “Mr. Strangeweather, one benefit of being a craftsman is that you learn the ins and outs of timber and rope, right angles and circles, beams, bolts and.. nooses. It was a simple matter, really. One hangman’s folly, and I was free. A slip of the wrist–” he swiped his cane through the air “–and a dead man lives.”

I gasped a syllable or two before Samuel Brodie stepped up to me. He said: “What do you say, Strangeweather? One last robbery… for the Deacon?” He pointed behind us and I gazed up at the outline of Edinburgh Castle, stark against the red night sky. “Well, what do you say?”

*        *        *

“Well,” I asked. “What did you say?”

Strangeweather leaned back in his chair. “My dear Mr. Butler,” he replied. “I am a gentleman, not a thief.”

The room exhaled and we all creased out of our armchairs. Questions were fired at Strangeweather and he deflected them with ease, as though swatting a wayward fly from his face: “How did you get away?” “Why, I walked, Alastair.” “Did you return to your work at the Castle?” “I never leave a good job, Silas.” “And Samuel Brodie?”

Strangeweather rose and the light cast shadows under his eyes. “He was hanged in April of that year, outside the Castle. He screamed at the top of his lungs, cried out: ‘It was Deacon Brodie who planned it, it was his theft, his final performance.’ But of course, no one believed him.”

“Except you?” I asked.

Strangeweather was, as his name suggested, prone to the most unexpected changes of temperament. He whipped out his cane and sliced the air with it, then, with a stern expression, said: “A dead man lives, Mr. Butler? No, I shan’t have such a thing.”